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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Has Accused's Right to Effective Assistance of Counsel Been Expanded by SCOTUS?

Since 2009, I have served as a roster attorney for the Michigan Appellate Assigned Counsel System (MAACS). While a MAACS roster attorney hones his knowledge of the many facets of criminal law in the appeal context, most assignments involve assessment of yet another guilty plea appeal. No glory in that, to be sure.

Many of the guilty-plea appeals involve the Sixth Amendment issue of ineffective assistance of counsel. Often, youthful offenders claim they are forced by trial counsel to "take a deal" that they later regret. Rarely do these claims have merit. In almost every case, the Michigan Court of Appeals is not persuaded that the accused youth tendered anything but a knowing and voluntary guilty plea.

The mantra of the trial court taking the plea comes to mind: "Are you pleading guilty here today because you are guilty of this offense?"  The accused, sheepishly, states in the affirmative.

Last year, however, the SCOTUS decided Padilla v Kentucky. The case reversed the conviction of a legal immigrant on the basis of ineffective assistance of counsel where the accused was not properly and fully advised of the immigration consequences of his guilty plea.  Padilla was told not to worry about deportation because he had been in the country so long.

The Padilla case has drawn much attention among scholars of the criminal law; not for its immigration component, but for how it has expanded the scope of a lawyers duty to advise their clients of all the myriad consequences associated with their plea.

These consequences go far beyond the mere risk of incarceration and fines.  The potential "collateral" consequences could an individual's right to obtain a loan, obtain insurance benefits, bear arms, to vote, serve on a jury, serve as a foster parent, to participate in particular professions, terminate pension benefits, determine where a person can live, result in the loss of child custody, and in the case of sex crimes, doom the individual to a near lifetime of onerous registration requirements.  This is but a partial listing of the potential consequences.

Difficulties certainly arise for the lawyer facing her client's guilty plea.  The collateral consequences associated with the plea are often scattered across the Michigan Penal Code, and the federal statutes.

Defense counsel is often oblivious to this trap-laden universe.  The courts are wholly unconcerned with consequences to a plea that they do not impose.  For their part, prosecutors are not troubled with matters outside their direct control.

Add to this the fact that Michigan's court-appointed defense counsel advises the accused on nearly a pro-bono basis, and you have the makings for a constitutional catastrophe; or at least an imminent collision with the Padilla holding.

In the Internet-Age, as the number of people with criminal records have increased, so has the ability of employers, educators, lenders, and landlords to gain direct access to those records.  This makes obtaining legal advise as to the collateral consequences of a guilty plea all the more compelling.

Lawyers will have to be sharper than ever as they ambulate across the minefield of the criminal case.  Keep your eyes wide open has always been a trait of the best criminal defense attorneys.

Related story in Sunday NYT:  No sooner was this post uploaded when the Times published a story on the problem with monitoring people that once had the right to carry a weapon, but lost that right due to a felony conviction.

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